Empathy is a critical part of many people’s jobs. It’s the quality that allows a manager to give feedback in a way that’s both constructive and kind, or helps a teacher figure out the right way to connect with a shy student.
But there is also a point at which empathy can tip over into excess. When we feel other people’s pain too deeply, we can wind up exhausted and overwhelmed.
The technical term for this feeling is “empathy distress,” which is common among “people who absorb too much of other people’s negative emotions,” says Daniel Goleman, an author and psychologist whose work on emotional intelligence has greatly influenced the fields of business and education.
Empathy distress is a problem not just for the people who experience it, but for the recipients of their empathy, too. That’s because “many people handle empathy distress by turning away,” Goleman says. “You know, sometimes it’s called burnout—I can’t do this anymore.”
The phenomenon often plays out among healthcare workers, and not just during pandemics. For many years, hospitals and medical schools have been developing programs both to train doctors and nurses in the art of empathy and to treat the stress and emotional exhaustion that can sometimes accompany it.
Given the massive grief that people around the world have experienced in the wake of Covid-19, as well as continued highly-publicized acts of racist violence, we may be especially at risk of empathy distress these days. The best way to preserve continued empathy, in ourselves and in the workplace, is to develop boundaries around it.
The downside of empathy
It makes sense that doctors or nurses might struggle with empathy distress, as seeing people in the midst of their suffering is part of the job description. But the problem also can manifest under plenty less extreme circumstances. Melody Wilding, an executive coach and author of Trust Yourself: Stop Overthinking and Channel Emotions for Success at Work, offers the example of a client whose company recently went through a reorganization.
“Because she is the most empathetic one, everyone was coming to her as the work therapist and dumping all of their stuff on her,” Wilding says. “And because she is highly empathetic, she was like a sponge just sucking all of this up, and it was draining her energy.”
Beyond the risk of burnout, there are other ways that excess empathy can make people less effective at their jobs. Wilding says that some of her highly empathetic clients are managers who are “so aware and conscious of wanting to keep their team happy and not upset people, for example, that they won’t give critical feedback.” As a result, “the team starts underperforming.”
Why do some people struggle with empathy overload?
Empathy is one of the four major aspects of emotional intelligence. The others, according to Goleman, are self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills. People who find themselves feeling overwhelmed and wrung-out by their empathy may be lacking in the self-management department, which involves drawing healthy boundaries and processing our feelings in ways that allow us to remain calm. In other words, Goleman says, “empathy distress is due to a defect in one’s emotional intelligence.”
“It’s a failure of managing your upsetting emotions,” he explains. “You’re just letting the other person’s emotions overwhelm you rather than metabolizing them.”
The three kinds of empathy
In order to solve the problem of empathy overload, Goleman says, it’s important to understand that there are three kinds of empathy, each of which involves different parts of the brain. Cognitive empathy means you intellectually understand other people’s perspectives, and what kind of language will be most effective to communicate with them. Emotional empathy is feeling what the other person feels—which can, in some cases, be too much for us to bear.
Lastly, there’s empathic concern, which makes us want to help people in need. A parent who remains calm and loving while their toddler is having a tantrum, Goleman says, is demonstrating empathic concern. They don’t experience the tempest of emotions that their child does in the moment. (If they did, it wouldn’t be very helpful.) But they care about their child’s well-being, so they remain present and help the toddler get through the tears.
Bringing empathic concern to tough situations is key to ensuring you don’t feel overly burdened while talking with a colleague who’s mourning the death of a loved one, or wiped out after counseling a client in danger of losing their home to foreclosure. “If you bring a caring attitude to another person’s pain or suffering, you can stay present to their suffering rather than being overwhelmed and turning away,” Goleman explains.
The art of staying present
There are a number of things people can do to cultivate the self-regulation techniques that allow them to act with empathic concern. Meditation is often helpful, Goleman says, because it makes people less reactive, which in turn allows them to stay present in the face of suffering.
Naming the emotion you are feeling is another good technique. If a meeting with an anguished colleague leaves you feeling shaken afterward, it helps to articulate that (if only to yourself). “It turns out you activate a different part of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that registers the pain, and it starts to give you an internal degree of freedom from that particular negative emotion,” Goleman says.
Creating external boundaries around work, while not necessarily easy, is at least straightforward: You might vow not to check email after 7pm, or make a habit out of working out and eating breakfast before powering on your laptop.
Creating internal boundaries to deal with empathy distress is a murkier proposal. But there are absolutely steps that you can take to teach yourself to leave the heavy emotions behind. “Even just something like at the end of the day, writing all of your concerns on the sheet of paper and then tearing up a piece of paper at the end, like mentally releasing at the end of the day,” can be helpful, Wilding suggests.
It can be tricky to figure out the right balance to strike. “Boundary-setting is facilitated by being able to turn off particular stress circuitry,” Goleman says. “However, if you turn that off to everybody else in your life, then you’re a cold, aloof person. You need to be able to have some voluntary control over that.”
All this said, there’s a certain beauty in the problem at the core of empathy distress—the idea that you can see through the veil that separates the self from others. Too many of the world’s problems are rooted in the inability of people to regard others’ experiences as being as important and real as their own. It’s in everyone’s interest to make sure that deeply caring people who give too much of themselves don’t wind up in a position where they can no longer keep giving.